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Korean sports: 2016 in review

Dec 30,2016
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Kim Chong, former vice culture minister, reportedly blackmailed swimmer Park Tae-hwan to stay out of Rio Olympics. [YONHAP]
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From the Summer Olympics to the game-rigging scandal in professional baseball, the world of Korean sports was filled with monumental stories in 2016. Some inspired the nation and gave people reason to smile, while others shocked and demoralized the public.

The story of Won Jong-hyun of NC Dinos in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), for example, was a human drama that left the fans in awe. Won had overcome colorectal cancer and returned to the mound to pitch for the Dinos in the Korean Series.

But the same KBO that saw heroes rise up to the stardom also bore witness to various controversies. Most notably, the game-rigging scandal that broke out midseason angered the fans and ended with some players being banned from the league.

Here are the top 10 sports stories from Korea in 2016, chosen by the Korea JoongAng Daily.

BY SPECIAL REPORT TEAM [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]



Park’s return to glory
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Formerly disgraced swimmer Park Tae-hwan witnessed his reputation undergo an about-face this year.

Park, who was suspended by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) for doping last year, finished serving his 18-month ban this march, which enabled him to train in FINA-sanctioned pools as well as compete in official international meets. However, the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) barred him from being in the national team until March 2019, stipulating that an athlete barred by the international sports body for doping cannot be on the national team for three years after the suspension is lifted. Park appealed and eventually gained a berth in the Rio Olympics, where he was eliminated from the heats in three events while withdrawing from one other. Many fans in Korea thought Park’s career had come to an end.

Later, amid rising controversy involving President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, it was discovered that Kim Chong, former vice culture minister, may have blackmailed Park not to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics, possibly causing him to perform poorly. After the news went viral, Korean fans changed their sentiment toward Park, saying he was essentially a victim.

Since then, Park has competed in two different international events and raked in seven gold medals.

History is made
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Park In-bee, a Korean golfer who was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame this year, became the first golfer in the history of the sport to have titles from four major championships and the Olympics.

Park, who had already accomplished her career grand slam before this year, struggled through various injuries throughout the season. Her injuries eventually raised concern that she might even skip the Olympics, where golf returned as an official medal sport after more than 100 years.

However, Park fought through and edged out Lydia Ko of New Zealand to climb to the top of the podium at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She finished five strokes clear of the runner-up, Ko, who shot two-under 69 for a four-day total of 11-under. She was the only Korean golfer that medalled during the Summer Games this year. Two other golfers, Amy Yang and Chun In-gee, failed to make it to the podium.

Since the Olympics, Park stayed out of the tour because of a thumb injury, although she hinted that she might be returning to the LPGA at the onset of the season next year. She plans to take part in the Honda Thailand LPGA next February.

Other than her, Chun won both the Vare Trophy and the Rookie of the Year award from the U.S.-based tour to cap off yet another phenomenal season for Korean golfers.


Archers still the best
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In August during the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Korean archers once again proved that they stand at the top of the food chain in the sport, sweeping the podium to capture gold medals in all four archery events at this year’s Olympics.

After the men’s team took gold in the men’s team event, the women’s team, also the reigning champions from the 2012 London Olympics, added another gold medal for Team Korea in archery. Chang Hye-jin then captured gold in the women’s individual event, followed by Ku Bon-chan, who tallied another Olympic gold by winning the men’s individual event.

After its podium sweep, Korea became the first nation in the history of the Olympics to have its countrymen take all four golds in the archery events.

Archery first became a medal event during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. It featured only the men’s and women’s individual event at the time. Sixteen years later, team events were added to the list. Since then, while the Korean men’s team has claimed five team titles, the Korean women’s team has yet to concede the top spot, claiming all eight golds.

During the Rio Olympics, Korea finished eighth in the medal tally with nine golds, three silvers and nine bronze.


Golf Godmother retires
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The godmother of Korean golf, Pak Se-ri, finally retired, ending a decorated career that spanned nearly two decades.

Pak, an inspiring figure in Korea who motivated the nation in 1998 in the wake of the financial crisis, bid adieu to the LPGA this October during the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship, the only LPGA event in Korea.

Pak is the first generation of Korean golfer in the U.S. tour.

Officially starting her career in the LPGA in 1998, she would win the LPGA Rookie of the Year award in 1998, and the LPGA Vare Trophy in 2003, which is given to the player with the lowest scoring average, before she was finally inducted into World Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.

Since Pak, numerous “Se-ri kids,” or golfers who grew up watching Pak play in the LPGA and nurtured their dream to become the next Pak, have emerged from Korea. The list includes Park In-bee, the first golfer in history to clinch four major titles as well as an Olympic gold medal. Pak was her coach during the Rio Games.

As of Dec. 23, there are 25 Korean golfers in the top 50 of the Rolex Rankings, including Chun In-gee, the rookie of the year this year.

Like Pak, Chun claimed her first two LPGA wins at major events, last year’s U.S. Open as well as this year’s Evian Championship.


Bears win Series title
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The Doosan Bears of Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) enjoyed a dominating season this year, winning the Korean Series title by taking down the NC Dinos without conceding a single loss.

The Bears, also the Korean Series champions from 2015, secured the league pennant after cruising through the regular season with 93 wins, 50 losses and one draw, setting the single-season record for wins.

Facing the Dinos in the Korean Series, the Bears, led by a starting-pitcher quartet made up of Dustin Nippert, Michael Bowden, Chang Won-jun and Yoo Hee-kwan, had a near impeccable performance and took down their opponents 4-0 in the Series.

The four starters made sure they got things done on the mound, all of them spending at least six innings in the game before they were relieved, allowing only five hits during their 52 at-bats.

The Bears were also fired up on the plate, outscoring the Dinos 20-2, while dominating them in every aspect of batting, .287 to .168 in BA, .420 to .200 in slugging, .352 to .235 in on base percentage and 41 to 21 in number of hits.

After sweeping the season as well as Korean Series title, Nippert, the winningest pitcher this year, received the Most Valuable Player honor.

Jeonbuk is Asia’s best
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The K-League Classic’s Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors were crowned the football champions of Asia, winning their first Asian Champions League (ACL) title in a decade in November by topping Al Ain FC of the United Arab Emirates.

Both teams were eyeing a comeback in this year’s finals. Jeonbuk was the 2006 league champion and Al Ain had won the inaugural title in 2003. Neither have won a trophy from the regional football tourney since, and both were desperate to end their decade-long drought.

By the end of the finals at this year’s ACL, which was played in two-legged format, Jeonbuk edged out Al Ain 3-2 aggregate to return home with Asia’s top football honor. This also allowed Jeonbuk to represent Asia at this year’s FIFA Club World Cup, where they finished fifth.

The 2016 season had been rather a dramatic one for Jeonbuk. Although they led the top-tier K-League Classic by a wide margin, their run came to a halt when they were docked nine points after one of their scouts was convicted of bribery. This gave their arch-rival FC Seoul a shot at the Classic trophy. Seoul ultimately took down Jeonbuk in the season’s final match and took the title.


KBO has record year
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Korea Baseball Organization witnessed its popularity go through the roof this year, hosting over 8 million fans throughout the season. However, its popularity took a blow briefly during the season when a game-rigging scandal involving some of its players broke out.

NC Dinos’ pitcher Lee Tae-yang and outfielder Moon Woo-ram of Sangmu, the Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps’ baseball team, were accused of game fixing in July, and Yoo Chang-sik, a pitcher from the Kia Tigers, reported to his team later that he was also involved in a game-fixing scheme in 2014 while playing for the Hanwha Eagles.

Game rigging is a violation of the National Sports Promotion Act, which prohibits anyone involved in professional sports, whether players, coaches or referees, from receiving any financial benefit for requests made in relation to sports.

Later in August, Lee was convicted of match-fixing by the Changwon District Court in South Gyeongsang. Lee was given a suspended two-year prison term for intentionally walking or trying to walk a batter in four games last season. He reportedly received as much as 20 million won ($17,579) as compensation.


Yuna enters hall of fame
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Kim Yuna, the retired figure skating star and former Olympic medalist, was inducted into the Korean sports hall of fame in November.

Kim, 26 years old, is the youngest and the first winter sports athlete to become a Korean sports hall of famer.

Kim is the first figure skater to reel in medals from the Winter Olympics. In 2010, Kim earned gold during the Vancouver Olympics. Four years later in Sochi, Kim won silver.

Kim is said to have been victimized by a corruption scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, which has infuriated the entire nation. Kim reportedly upset one of Choi’s associates after refusing to participate in a national group exercise routine known as “Neulpum Calisthenics,” which was directed by Choi’s friend, Cha Eun-taek, and attended by President Park.

Some reported that Kim was therefore denied the hall of fame honor last year. Despite earning over 80 percent of the votes by fans in 2015, Kim was excluded from the final list because of a regulation stipulating that only those 50 years old or older may be inducted, an explanation provided by the KOC. The KOC reportedly abolished the rule this year.


Son makes Asian first
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Son Heung-min, a forward for the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur, became the first-ever Asian EPL player of the month when he won the award in September.

Son boasted great form in September after returning to Spurs during rumors of a possible transfer. The speculation was that Son performed poorly last season, his first season at the EPL, which forced the Spurs to consider selling him off during the off season transfer window.

Still, Son managed to score four goals and tally an assist in September and led the Spurs’ run in the league. He was also voted the best Korean forward of 2016 by fans during the year-end polls, conducted by the Korea Football Association.

Before he was selected as the EPL player of the month in September, he played as a wild card for the Korean football team during the Olympics, although Korea’s attempt to tally another medal during the Summer Games was cut short after suffering an upset by Honduras.

Son scored two goals during the Rio Olympics. After the Summer Games, he played for the Korean national team under manager Uli Steiilike during the World Cup qualifiers. He scored a goal in October against Qatar.


Baseball thrills fans
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This year’s Major League Baseball season was full of spectacles, especially for Koreans.

In addition to the Chicago Cubs’ dramatic run to come back from a three-to-one deficit and claim their first title since 1908, there were a total of eight Korean stars in the top U.S. baseball league, at least at the onset of the season in March.

Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates were some of the familiar names in the MLB, since the three players made their debut before 2016. In addition, Oh Seung-hwan of the Saint Louis Cardinals, Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners, Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins, Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles and Choi Ji-man of the Los Angeles Angels made their MLB debut after finding their names on their team’s opening day roster.

For Ryu, Choo and Park, their seasons were cut short due to injuries. Lee mostly played under the platoon system, seeing limited playing time, but Oh and Kang became key players for their teams. Kim, who was nearly relegated to the minors, went from being booed on opening day to be called the O’s “Ichiro Suzuki.”